Academic promotion: through teaching or research? … plus Wikipedia misinformation!

First, apologies for the long title for this post – it didn’t start out that way, but as I was writing I came across a serious error in Wikipedia, a timely reminder to treat it with caution. And given my recent penchant for talking up matters wiki-related, I thought I’d better temper my enthusiasm and report my finding.

Second, this post is a bit of a diversion – nothing to do with distance education or open learning! It’s about the ongoing debate/discussion concerning the apparent inequity with respect to academic promotion: can you get promoted in higher education through good teaching, or is it all about research output (i.e. number and quality of publications)? It’s also about the history of maths, a subject that has fascinated me for decades.

Conventional wisdom has it that until recently academic promotion was all about research, with examples of promotion through teaching being as rare as hens’ teeth. The belief is that the situation is slowly changing, with teaching (and service/administration) creeping into consideration. 

So it’s with this background that I’d like to tell you a (true!) story about two mathematicians, one a great teacher and one a brilliant researcher. They both applied for the same job at Christiania University in Norway. Who got the position, and why? And what were the consequences?

The candidates were Bernt Michael Holmboe and Niels Henrik Abel. If you’ve read any maths you will know of Abel, who by the time of his application had already proved the insolvability of the quintic by a simple formula (thus ending the ongoing toils of countless talented mathematicians over a period of centuries!). This was not just maths of the highest calibre, but “it changed the entire approach to equations from mere attempts to find solutions to the necessity to prove whether solutions of certain types exist at all” (p. 97 of The Equation that Couldn’t be Solved by Mario Livio).*

Nevertheless, Holmboe (a friend and ardent supporter of Abel) got the job, as the panel believed that Abel “cannot as easily adjust himself to the comprehension of the younger students as a more experienced teacher, and would thus not be able to present so fruitfully the elementary part of mathematics”. 

The consequences of this decision were dire. Abel was already poverty-stricken and somewhat sickly, and although he worked on for a few short years, his circumstances brought about his untimely death in 1829 at the age of 26. Mathematics was robbed of the talents of one of its greatest contributors.

What can we say or conclude about this sad and sorry tale? Not a lot, and to this can be added the even more compelling and dramatic end (at the tender age of 20) of another famous mathematician of the time, Evariste Galois (no Wikipedia link this time – I’ve gone off it for the moment!). Perhaps it’s just a reminder that that appointment and promotion through good teaching, rather than research, has a long and distinguished(!?) history.

*[As I read the Wikipedia entry on Abel linked above, I was dismayed to read the claim that he contacted aids and herpes while in Paris, and that he’d passed on the diseases to his fiance – this was in 1826!  Livio’s well-researched and more authoritative account paints a very different picture of Abel’s time there, also mentioning the affliction which eventually claimed his life – tuberculosis. With this in mind, I edited the Wikipedia entry to reflect this information.]


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